Distribution, Access & Equity

As you learned in the last module, the causes of global hunger are complex, and it is important to look at their roots. As we learned, there are more than enough calories for every person on the planet, yet hunger is perpetuated by a complex mix of corporate interests, government policies, and misguided trade policies.

In this module, we’ll focus on world trade and how policies have further impacted the global hunger crisis and agricultural systems. You’ll learn how organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and trade policies such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) have influenced our globalized food system.

Article 1: Food Security, Farming, and the WTO and CAFTA

by Deborah James |  Global Exchange

Porfirio supports his family in Nicaragua by growing beans to eat and sell. He spends most of his day tending to his beans as well as working with his wife to maintain their house and raise all five of their children. If a new “free trade” agreement called CAFTA passes, Porfirio fears that he will not be able to get a decent price for his beans. The cheapest beans at the market in Managua are imported from the US where the average farmer receives $21,000 a year in subsidies from the government. It is impossible for Porfirio’s beans to compete against corporate agribusiness. After producing beans and feeding his family his entire life, Porfirio has been told that the best way for him to compete in the free market (under CAFTA) is to produce sesame, an export crop. His success will be dependent on the whims of the international market. When international sesame prices fall, Porfirio will not be able to sell his sesame. He will have no money to buy food for his family, and his family can’t survive eating sesame. He may have to sell his land and become one more unemployed person desperately looking for work in the cities or migrating to a wealthy country. (Witness for Peace)

As a necessary element of human survival, food is a human right. Small, local family farms are the bedrock of traditional rural communities and global food security- the ability of countries to produce the food they need to survive. Yet the global food supply is increasingly falling under the control of giant multinational corporations. Large agribusinesses have rewritten the rules of the global agricultural economy, using “free trade” agreements to turn food into a commodity for profit rather than a human right. The global corporatization of agriculture has had disastrous effects on farmers, food security, and the environment.

Implemented in 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), ‘liberalized’ trade between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Under NAFTA, farmers’ income in all three countries has plummeted and millions of small farmers have lost their land, while agribusiness corporations have reaped huge profits.

In spite of its obvious failures, new trade agreements are being written to expand NAFTA-style corporate free trade. In March of 2004, the governments of the United States, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic completed the U.S.-Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). If CAFTA is passed in the U.S. Congress, it would impose NAFTA-style agricultural policies on the heavily agriculture-dependent countries of Central America. Over 5.5 million workers and farmers’ livelihoods would be put at risk. CAFTA would also cause a further decline in U.S. family farmers’ incomes.

What’s more, CAFTA would pave the way for a massive Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) currently in negotiations, which would extend the scope of NAFTA to include all countries in the western hemisphere except Cuba—thus multiplying the harrowing effects of NAFTA on small farmers and threatening food security for generations to come.

Both CAFTA and the FTAA are even more extreme than the Agreement on Agriculture (AOA) of the World Trade Organization (WTO), a global agreement involving 148 countries designed to shift world food production to export markets.

Food: To Eat or to Export?

The stated theory of free-trade proponents is that increased trade and decreased government regulation would increase food security and solve rural poverty. But the results have not borne out the alleged theory, because the WTO, FTAA, and CAFTA were never meant to solve global poverty and hunger. In reality, globalization of food production represents an unprecedented hijacking of the global food supply for corporate profit.

Underpinning the WTO, FTAA, and CAFTA is the ideology that all food – from basic grains and meat to fruits and vegetables – should be produced for international export. This is a drastic shift from the centuries-old practice where each country produced the majority of food its citizens needed on local, small farms – and only traded in certain products that could not be grown locally. Indeed, the first great wave of globalization – the colonization of Africa, Asia, and Latin America – was based on transnational companies forcing local farmers to give up local food production, and shift production to plantations using enslaved Indigenous and African labor to grow luxury crops of coffee, sugar, bananas, and cocoa for export to the colonizing countries.

But now, the drive toward globalization of agriculture would put transnational corporations in control of the entire food supply. Market forces, rather than national policies set by democratically elected officials, would control agricultural food systems. Under this scenario, each country would only produce a few export commodities, wiping out local food production, small family farms, and greatly compromising global food security. As a result, the human right to food would be dependent on multinational corporations and markets, increasing the risk of hunger and famine worldwide.

Reducing “Barriers” to Trade in Agriculture

Global agricultural policy used to be geared towards maintaining stability in global markets. Supply management programs, also called commodities agreements, helped maintain production around the same as demand, so that farmers didn’t produce an oversupply that would cause prices to collapse. These programs helped keep market prices above a price floor, which is a minimum price over the cost of production that farmers need to survive.

In addition, countries have historically promoted their local economies by protecting domestic production from foreign competition. Most countries maintain taxes on foreign imports, called tariffs, as well as outright limits on the quantities of foreign imports, called quotas, in order to favor local economic development. This has especially been true in the agricultural sector, where local food production is key to food sovereignty.

Starting in the mid-1990s, however, these policies were abandoned in the U.S. in favor of free market, export-driven policies that promoted production for export rather than for domestic consumption. As the world’s largest exporter of agricultural products, U.S. agricultural policy has dictated global agricultural policy.

The impact of the WTO and other free trade agreements in agriculture has been to eliminate so-called “barriers to trade,” such as supply management, price controls, and tariffs and quotas, while maintaining practices that favor multinational corporations, such as subsidies and market concentration


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Effects of “Free Trade” Agricultural Policies on Small Farmers and Food Security

CAFTA and the FTAA would consolidate and expand free market policies that have already devastated rural communities under NAFTA and the WTO.

Loss of Small Farm Income

The devastation of Mexican corn farmers due to NAFTA most sharply exemplifies the horrifying effects of these policies. After NAFTA eliminated Mexican quotas for corn, artificially-priced U.S. corn flooded the market. U.S. agribusinesses typically dump corn on the Mexican market at prices 30 percent below the cost of production. Before NAFTA, Mexico only imported about 2.5 million tons of corn per year. In 2001, they imported over 6 million tons of corn. The price of Mexican corn fell 70 percent. Millions of small family corn farmers have been left without a source of income, and have been forced to abandon their communities in search of a way to feed their families. The bedrock of traditional Mexican rural life, corn farming families, have been torn apart by NAFTA.

While agreements like NAFTA and the WTO offer policies that favor agribusiness, they have been slow to address concerns of developing countries facing rock-bottom commodities prices. For example, in the WTO, African countries have raised the issue of low commodities prices in cotton, a staple of income for countries like Benin, Senegal, Mali, and Chad. Recent U.S. production of cotton has doubled, causing a world depression in cotton prices. In a July WTO meeting, the Trade Minister of Benin stated that Benin was “not prepared to accept the death of thousands of peasants as the price of a deal.”

Loss of Food Sovereignty

Under free trade regimes, developing countries are unable to use traditional methods of encouraging self-sufficiency in food production, because NAFTA and the WTO, as would CAFTA, prohibit internal support programs and import controls (quotas). The result has been an increased dependence on imported staples that have to be bought on the global market instead of grown locally. Since many countries can’t afford to buy imported food, they have to increase their foreign debt or suffer increased rates of malnutrition.

Under CAFTA, Central American countries were able to negotiate an exemption to tariff reductions only on one corn variety– white corn. This means that protective tariffs for staple food products such as rice and beans are prohibited. The result will be that in Nicaragua, for instance, tariff-free imports of yellow corn would increase ten times their current amount in the first year of CAFTA.

Increased Food Prices

Consumer prices were supposed to decline under NAFTA—yet while farmer’s commodity prices have plummeted, consumer food prices have risen in all three NAFTA countries. The U.S. consumer price index for food rose by 22 percent between 1994 and 2002. While Mexican farmers now earn 70 percent less for their corn, they pay 50 percent more for tortillas. Without domestic support for family farmers, poor countries have become increasingly dependent on food imports. Imports of agriculture products in Mexico have increased by 44 percent since NAFTA, pushing local producers out of the market. This is true for products such as: wheat, potatoes, rice, barley, coffee, milk products, sugar, fruits and many others. When exchange rates fluctuate, this can lead to a dramatic rise—sometimes a doubling or tripling—in food prices for poor consumers.

Loss of Land and Increase in Migration

Under NAFTA and the WTO, over one and a half million Mexican farmers have lost their sources of income, forcing them to abandon their farms. This has created a massive farmers’ migration to big cities and other countries in search of jobs. In 2002, an average of 600 Mexicans were forced off their land each day. Annually now 500,000 Mexicans per year attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border to find a way to feed their families. In the past five years, 1600 Mexican migrants have died while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border searching for jobs. Under CAFTA, Central American corn, rice, beans, and sorghum farmers, as well as poultry, pig, cow, and dairy producers all stand to be driven off their land by cheap imports. In Guatemala alone, experts predict that CAFTA will result in the loss of 45,000 to 120,000 agricultural jobs.

Corporate Consolidation

Since NAFTA was implemented, 38,000 small farms have been lost in the United States, and 11 percent of Canadian farms have gone bankrupt. A mere 2 percent of farms in the United States control 50 percent of American agricultural sales. Over 73 percent of the nation’s farms share less than 7 percent of the market value of agricultural products, while 7.2 percent of farms receive 72 percent of the market value of products sold. Eight-two percent of U.S. corn exports are controlled by three agribusiness firms- Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), and Zen Noh. While family farmer incomes have plummeted during the first 7 years of NAFTA, ADM’s profits went from $110 million to $301 million, while ConAgra’s grew from $143 million to $413 million.

Corporate Control of Plants and Seeds

The Trade-Related Intellectual Property (TRIPs) agreement within the WTO establishes global and uniform protection for trademarks, copyrights and patents. Perhaps most controversial and worrisome is the fact that these protections also apply to patenting of life forms. For example, traditional, plant-derived medicines used by Indigenous populations in countries such as Brazil could be patented by a transnational corporation for profit, as long as the Indigenous peoples had not already done so. It is highly unlikely, however, that Indigenous communities would seek a patent, because plants are considered to be a shared resource, not a commodity to be exploited for profit.

CAFTA and the TRIPs agreement also undermine global access to and distribution of seeds and, therefore, the food supply. As corporations begin to patent seeds, local farmers must pay annual fees and/or sign technology use agreements that prohibit saving patented seeds and limit the use of seeds that have been used by generations. Subsistence farmers cannot afford the cost of purchasing new seeds each year, and the limiting of seed varieties makes food supplies vulnerable to plant pests and diseases.

The Spread of Genetically Modified Organisms

Currently, agreements under the WTO and CAFTA grant unprecedented rights to multinational corporations producing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The WTO has ruled that GMOs must be treated no differently than their conventional counterparts. Thus, consumers are unknowingly being used as guinea pigs for the powerful biotech industry. Scientists have argued that the spread of GMOs drastically reduces biodiversity as a result of the contamination of conventional crops by pollen from those containing GMOs. Currently, no satisfactory protections exist to safeguard our food supply from known or unknown dangers of this new technology. Under CAFTA, GMO corporations would be granted the power to file suit against countries whose farmers replanted GMO seeds.

Environmental Degradation

Industrial agriculture practices replace sustainable family farm practices and take an extra toll on the environment that is not reflected in consumer prices. The overuse of fertilizers and chemicals, overgrazing, and the unenforced regulation of factory farm dumping of agricultural byproducts such as excrement and pesticides into rivers and streams all damage the quality of air, water, and soil, which are our shared resources. Corporate “free trade” agreements continue to stick communities and taxpayers with the costs of cleanup and loss of environmental quality, while corporations reap the profits embodied in industrial agriculture.

Erosion of Democracy

In order to be in compliance with NAFTA, the Mexican government actually had to change the Mexican Constitution’s land redistribution statutes to allow foreign ownership of land. This allowed lands owned collectively by farming communities to be sold off or taken by creditors. This move led to the uprising of the Indigenous people of Chiapas in the Zapatista rebellion on January 1, 1994 – the very day NAFTA took effect. The Zapatistas view NAFTA as a death knell for Indigenous people.

Under Chapter 11 of NAFTA, corporations are also empowered to directly sue national governments (called investor-to-state dispute resolution) in the event that domestic legislation interferes with their profit maximization. CAFTA includes these same investor rights, inviting challenges from foreign corporations over governmental actions such as GMO food labeling, increased food safety standards, or local purchasing preferences.

Farmers across Mexico protested the implementation of the final phase-in of NAFTA agricultural policies on January 1, 2003. A movement called “The Countryside Can’t Take Anymore!” is working to educate the world about the failed promises of “free trade” in Mexico. And hundreds of thousands of farmers in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua have mobilized against CAFTA and the FTAA in recent years.

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Food Access and Race

In the United States, food access is complicated. Accessing healthy, affordable, culturally-relevant foods is dependent on retailers being close enough, stocking healthy foods, and them being affordable. As you’ll read in the article below, in the United States food access for communities of color is part of structural violence against these communities.


Why Food Belongs in Our Discussions of Race

While the Black Lives Matters movement works to put a stop to police violence, another less-visible form of structural violence is taking place all across America.

In the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown, the Baltimore uprising after the death of Freddie Gray, and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, much has been written about the nature of poverty and violence in American cities. But one aspect that is chronically underreported is the lack of access to healthy foods in many of those same communities. Indeed, the reliance on a highly processed food supply is causing disease, suffering, and eventual death, especially to those in the poorest of neighborhoods.

A report released this June by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that one in four Baltimore residents lives in an under-resourced area or “food desert” (a term that some food activists reject). This is not unusual or unique to Baltimore, but is the standard in urban centers throughout the country. Only eight percent of Black Americans live in a community with one or more grocery stores, compared to 31 percent of white Americans.

And while food is by no means at the center of the Black Lives Matter movement, it could emerge as an important corollary issue in the months and years to come.

“The fact is, I can’t get an organic apple for 10 miles,” said Ron Finley, known as the “gangsta gardener,” who lives in South Central, Los Angeles. “Why is it like that? Why don’t certain companies do business in these so-called communities? ‘Oh there’s no money,’ they say—there’s money. If there’s no money than why are there drugstores here? Why are the dialysis centers here? Why are there fast food restaurants? What there is, is disregard for these places.”

The disregard that Finley speaks of has vast implications for the health of people living in areas with little access to healthy, whole foods. Meaning that a significant threat to Black lives comes from our food supply itself—from the glut of fast food and other highly processed food options and the virtually unregulated chemical additives that lace these foods.

The rates of diet-related disease break down dramatically along racial lines. African Americans get sick at younger ages, have more severe illnesses, and die sooner than white Americans. The American Journal of Public Health found that Blacks scored almost 50 percent higher than whites on a measurement called Allostatic Load, the 10 biomarkers of aging and stress. While there are clearly multiple factors at work, diet plays a significant role in these findings.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of obesity for African Americans is 51 percent higher than for white Americans and one in two African Americans born in the year 2000 is expected to develop type 2 diabetes. Compared with white adults, the risk of diabetes is 77 percent higher among blacks. The rates of death from heart disease and stroke are almost twice as high among African Americans.

Just as our economy has become starkly stratified with wealth concentrated at the top, it is increasing clear that we live in a two-tiered food system in which the wealthy tend to eat well and are rewarded with better health, while the poor tend to eat low-quality diets, causing their health to suffer. A report released last year by the Harvard School of Public Health found that while diet quality improved among people of high socioeconomic status, it deteriorated among those at the other end of the spectrum, and the gap doubled between 2000 and 2010. African Americans experience the highest rate of poverty in the U.S.—25.8 percent, compared to 11.6 percent of whites. And 45.8 percent of young Black children live in poverty compared with 14.5 percent of white children.

Dr. Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham, Sr., President of the Matthew A. Henson Neighborhood Association in Baltimore said he sees this in his community. “Stop allowing there to be two Baltimores,” he wrote in an email. “Have the Health Department and our elected officials place more funding and more emphasis on poorer, neglected, communities….”

The solution to food inequality has traditionally been framed as a problem of access and education: Bring healthy foods into under-served communities and educate those living there on healthy eating, the argument goes. But just as getting oneself out of poverty is far more complicated than working hard and getting an education, maintaining a healthy body by “choosing” to eat well is far more complex than making simple decisions about what to eat in our current food landscape.

In both cases, the ideology of “personal responsibility” is invoked, which fails to address deeper, structural issues like the myriad causes and effects of poverty. As author and University of California Santa Cruz professor Julie Guthman puts it, “Built environments reflect social relations and political dynamics…more than it creates them.”

When we frame the problem in terms of simplistic solutions, like “better access to fruits and vegetables” or “education about healthy eating” the underlying structures remain and the food, agricultural, and chemical industries are not impacted at all. As Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writes in his new book Between The World And Me, “The purpose of the language of … ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration.”

I asked Karen Washington, a food activist and farmer at Rise & Root Farm in the Bronx, what she thought about creating better access in “food deserts.” “Bringing a grocery store into food insecure neighborhoods is not the answer,” she wrote in a recent email. “What needs to be addressed is the cause of food insecurity; the reason for hunger and poverty. Do you really think that bringing a supermarket into an impoverished neighborhood, where people have no jobs and no hope is the solution? Heck no!”

According to the latest U.S. Department of Labor report, the rate of Black unemployment is more than double the rate of white unemployment—9.1 and 4.2 percent, respectively. Workers wages have been stagnant across the board for the past decade but for black workers, wages have fallen by twice as much as they have for whites in the past five years.

Washington says that the bottom line is that people need jobs. “No one talks about job creation, business enterprises, or entrepreneurships in low-income communities,” she said. “We have to start owning our own businesses, like farmers’ markets, food hubs, and food cooperatives. When you own something it gives you power.”

Finley wants to see more people growing food for themselves and their neighbors. He says the focus is too often merely about bringing food into communities. “People don’t have any skin in the game. I want people to have some kind of hand in their food. I don’t care how rich you are, if you don’t have a hand in your food, you’re enslaved,” he said.

Of course, it’s critical to point out that for many people of color, the danger of immediate bodily harm is far more pressing than concerns about long-term health effects. As Washington sees it, it doesn’t make sense to apply the Black Lives Matter Movement directly to food. “The only correlation is that people are tired of the injustices that plague their communities each and every day and are starting to take action and matters into their own hands,” she said.

But it’s also clear that the Black Lives Matter movement is expanding. “We are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state,” reads the group’s website.

It’s crucial to bring issues around food and health into dialogue with discussions of structural racism, poverty, and violence in this country. “What are they feeding us if we have more diseases than we’ve ever had before in certain communities?” asks Finley. “You have asthma, hypertension, diabetes, obesity—and all of this stuff is food-related.”

Finley says this makes for an obvious connection to the Black Lives Matter movement. “We’re under siege and a lot of these communities are being occupied and terrorized—by food companies,” he said.

Another optional reading

Hopkins study examines racial, economic disparities in access to healthy food

FORUM QUESTION: Distribution, Access & Equity